Doubt, Uncertainty and Belief
A sermon on John 20:19-31 preached at Trinity Episcopal Church, Hamburg New York , on the Second Sunday in Easter, April 7th 2013.
I am a bit of a doubter. Actually that’s a lie. I am a big doubter. If this were an Doubter’s Anonymous meeting, I’d probably say “Hi, my name is Blane and I’m a doubter.” There are some things that I just have a hard time believing in. And there are other things in my life that, if I hadn’t experienced them for myself – seen them with my own eyes, witnessed them for myself – I would never have believed them if someone else had told me it were so. I’d tell you what I mean, but then I’d be tempted to spend a bit too much time on my own story and not enough time on today’s Gospel reading which, in a nutshell, teaches us less about doubt and more about belief.
Thomas isn’t there when they all gather on the first day of the week, behind a locked door and afraid. He shows up late and misses the spectacle the rest of them claim to have witnessed. He even blows off their eyewitness testimony: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
He doesn’t sound much like a disciple.
Thomas has seen Jesus arrested in Gethsemane, where he scattered with the others in panic for his own life. On Friday Thomas watched from a distance as they spiked Jesus to a tree on the Roman killing grounds of Golgotha – a shameful death and a miserable, disappointing end.
On Saturday he is shock – and on Sunday – the first day of the week – he is so disillusioned he doesn’t even gather with the disciples for a scheduled meal. Thomas is perhaps dazed and bitter and hurt. So on Monday morning, when the disciples go looking for him to say “Thomas, we were in that place, with the doors locked and Jesus came and spoke “Shalom!” He showed us his hands – jagged holes where the nails had been. He wasn’t sick or weak or dying. He’s alive. He’s back from the dead!”
Thomas says: “I don’t believe you. I don’t believe a word of it. I saw him die. Give it up. Unless I see for myself I will not believe it.”
Thomas’ anger and confusion cool over the course of a week and by the next Sunday – again the first day of the week – Thomas is back in community eating supper with the disciples. Thomas is still there, back in this place. And they are still gathering. The doors are shut – and probably locked. And suddenly there’s Jesus: “Shalom!”
Turning to Thomas Jesus says “Put your finger here. See. Touch. Believe.” Thomas is all ears and he’s all eyes. And you know how this story goes: Thomas the doubter becomes Thomas the believer – and not because he finally got to stick his finger in the nail wounds; not because he got to stick his hand in Jesus’ side. Thomas realizes – and in a moment. His response, at least as John tells it, is to blurt out “My Lord and My God!”
Is there a difference between doubt and unbelief? I think there is. Let me tell what I believe. Hear me out before you doubt me:
Perhaps doubt is more about not being able to believe. As in “I can’t believe what I am hearing or seeing or thinking.”
Perhaps unbelief is more about refusing to believe. As in “I won’t believe.”
The English word “doubt” in today’s Gospel reading is a clumsy translation. In the Greek the word – as it comes from Jesus’ lips – literally means “to waver” or “to hesitate.” So hear the words differently and perhaps a little more accurately:
“Put your finger here [says Jesus] – and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not hesitate, do not waver, but believe.”
To doubt something, using this meaning, is to be uncertain or hesitant about accepting something, not necessarily disbelieving it, but being unsure or uncertain that something could be true.
To put is bluntly: doubt is not the opposite of faith; unbelief is. And doubt does not necessarily mean the end of faith, either. In fact, for many of us, the opposite is true. We believe because we doubt. The idea that we should be ashamed of doubting something because doubt is a betrayal of our faith is nonsense.
Doubt is honesty in the face of uncertainty.
Unbelief, as it is used in the Bible on the other hand, is obstinate and wilful.
To believe is to be in one mind. To doubt is to be in two minds – suspended between a real desire to believe and a real desire to disbelieve. We hear this when the father of the “Demoniac” boy (as Mark tells it) – afflicted with convulsions and seizures – cries out “I believe!” and then immediately says “help my unbelief!” That’s an honest moment for him. He believed and needed Jesus’ help with his unbelief – and all this in the same moment. Doubt, you see, is the thing that causes us to question, and to wrestle, and to seek out, which means that we are still coming to God, still in relationship with him. Unbelief is when you and I just walk away from God. Thomas did not walk away. Big difference.
And what about you? Doubting God’s plan for you doesn’t make you a bad or even an ungrateful person. Doubt doesn’t mean that you are testing God or that you lacking in faith. In fact, doubt may allow you to search within your own heart to examine why you believe what you believe. Doubt – as in hesitation, or as in wavering, as I see it, is an opportunity to grow and get to where God wants you to be. Unlike unbelief, wavering is the stuff that faith is made of. Even evidence can be insufficient without belief. Even at Jesus’ invitation, John does not record Thomas actually sticking a finger into the nail wound on Jesus’ hands, nor did John have Thomas thrusting his hand into Christ’s side. Instead, Thomas simply says: “My Lord and My God!”
Jesus replies: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those [Jesus says of people just like us] blessed are these who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Actually we have another poor translation in our New Revised Standard Version. It is better translated as “blessed are these who have not seen and yet continue to believe.” Doubt is necessary for continued growth. Doubt is an essential exercise in our ability to discern truth from error. Doubt is part of faith; uncertainty can lead us exercise trust.
There will be moments where we seem to have all the faith in the world. These are moments when we can muster up courage in the most trying times of disease and death. despair and addiction, and say: “God help me in my wavering. I am going through something that doesn’t make any sense at all, but I trust You to bring me through this. Everything around me right now contradicts your goodness. So God help me. So, God. Help me through my wavering.”
Haven’t you ever been in the middle of a church service and you found yourself unable to believe what you were hearing or reading or praying? Perhaps it was something you heard coming from the pulpit – maybe even right now. Perhaps it was a word in a line of a hymn that struck you as being particularly unbelievable. Maybe you run up against a certain phrase in the liturgy or in the Creed that sticks in your throat every time you say it. While others are belting it out all around you, perhaps you let it pass in silence. You see, we are all counted among the unbelievers and the doubters and religion has not always responded to our unbelief well. Sometimes we feel condemned when some imply that there must be something wrong with our intellects or our characters or our lifestyles if we cannot accept all of the teachings of the church universally and without exception. I think a healthy sense of skepticism is, well, a right and good and a joyful thing. As in: don’t hide your doubt under a bushel! As in: let your doubt shine. Let your lack of faith come forward so that you and I and others can grapple with it and by God’s grace move towards a faith that is richer and deeper and stronger for it.
When Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on the disciples, he breathed on them all equally. He even breathed on absent Thomas with as much breath as he breathed on those present. He breathed equally on Peter who had recently denied ever knowing Jesus when pressed by the servant girl around the fire. Jesus’ resurrection breath comes to deniers and doubters because Jesus chooses to give it, not because we qualify for it. He breathes on us, his weak and flawed disciples, so that we can continue to believe through times of faith and even more so in times of doubt and even despair.
Here at our Eucharist – on the first day of the week – Jesus appears to us in our time in the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation. These are the gifts of God for all the people of God. Take them – and when you do, take them in remembrance of the great mystery of our faith: that Christ died for you; that Christ rose for you and that Christ will come again. As we gather at the Table today, feed on him in your hearts – by faith – and with thanksgiving. In doing so, may we, as John puts it, “. . . continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing we may have life in his name.”
In the name of God: + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.